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Carnegie Mellon rover heads to Atacama Desert for final mission in 3-year search for life

PITTSBURGH--Carnegie Mellon University researchers and their colleagues from NASA's Ames Research Center, the universities of Tennessee, Arizona and Iowa, as well as Chilean researchers at Universidad Catolica del Norte (Antofagasta) are preparing for the final stage of a three-year project to develop a prototype robotic astrobiologist, a robot that can explore and study life in the driest desert on Earth.

The team will direct and monitor Zo, an autonomous solar-powered rover developed at Carnegie Mellon, as it travels 180 kilometers in Chile's Atacama Desert. Zo is equipped with scientific instruments to seek and identify micro-organisms and to characterize their habitats. It will use them as it explores three diverse regions of the desert during its two-month stay, which runs from August 22 to October 22.

The results of this expedition ultimately may enable future robots to seek life on Mars, as well as enabling the discovery of new information about the distribution of life on Earth.

The search-for-life project was begun in 2003 under NASA's Astrobiology Science and Technology Program for Exploring Planets, or ASTEP, which concentrates on pushing the limits of technology to study life in harsh environments.

Zo's abilities represent the culmination of three years of work to determine the optimum design, software and instrumentation for a robot that can autonomously investigate different habitats. During the 2004 field season, Zo exceeded scientists' expectations when it traveled 55 kilometers autonomously and detected living organisms using its onboard Fluorescence Imager (FI) to locate chlorophyll and other organic molecules.

"Our goal with this final investigation is to develop a method to create a real-time, 3D topographic 'map' of life at the microscopic level," said Nathalie Cabrol, a planetary scientist at NASA Ames and the SETI Institute who heads the science investigation aspects of the project. "This map eventu
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Contact: Lauren Ward
wardle@andrew.cmu.edu
412-268-7761
Carnegie Mellon University
10-Aug-2005


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